Wednesday, August 05, 2009


The first theories about extinction and evolution came out of Revolutionary France, that new and secular republic which had deposed its monarchy and sought a rational explanation of humanity's development from the natural sciences. The French naturalist Georges Cuvier, in particular, had compared the bone structures of existing animals with fossils and proved the extinction of species.

Yet ironically, it was in Britain that the seeds of palaeontology and the public fascination with dinosaurs were sown. Perhaps even more ironically, they were first sown in the reified, bourgeois setting of the Great Exhibition of 1851. And, rather wonderfully, these seeds still exist in giant concrete form on Sydenham Hill.

The artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins had been commissioned to prepare a number of models of extinct mammals and reptiles for the Exhibition, with guidance from the great Victorian biologist Richard Owen. Owen had worked alongside Darwin in the 1830s, and his research into the extinct land reptiles of the Mesozoic period (which he named “dinosaurs”) had influenced Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Owen was a conservative and, with one cautious eye on the radical activities of the proletariat, he feared that Darwin’s theories of transmutation and his assertion that humans were descended from apes would bestialize men.

The Dinosaur Court at Crystal Palace is easy to dismiss; the models are now accepted as being quite inaccurate. The iguanodons, in particular, are depicted as thick-set, hooved animals that walk on all fours. But in 1854, when the Court opened to the public, no skeleton of a dinosaur had ever been constructed, and these models remain magnificent in their own way, and gigantic too (upon completion, Owen held a dinner-party inside an iguanodon’s shell). Dr Angela Milner of the NHM describes them as “shambling, bear-like mammals” but recognises that the genesis of a public fascination with dinosaurs lies in these malformed sculptures.

Our favourites were the megatherium (a tree-hugging mammoth that would be terrifying if it weren’t an antecedent of the sloth), the megalosaurus (a jagged-toothed, rather confused-looking thing, forever destined to question the value of a life spent among the lilacs), the splendidly rubber-necked ichthyosaurs and the bloated iguanodons themselves. I liked the psychedelic-eyed reptile poking its head quizzically out of a manmade suburban lake, but I can’t remember what he was supposed to be.

The history of the Dinosaur Court has been shrouded in deceit and dereliction, and is inextricably tied to that of Crystal Palace. Despite the commercial success of the Great Exhibition and the relocation of the Palace to Sydenham, the Court proved too expensive to complete, and Hawkins was ordered to stop building before the 33 planned models could be completed. After Crystal Palace burned down in the 1930s, the dinosaurs were abandoned; in the 1950s they were restored and now form part of a hotch-potchy, faintly pointless (the ruined sphynxes, statues and aquarium poke out of the weeds and attend to an overgrown space where a Palace should be) and gloriously unregenerated park. Under the beady eye of Margaret Hodge, the dinosaurs were awarded the status of Grade 1 listed buildings in 2007.

The fates of the Court's architects were largely unhappy. Owen went on to found the National History Museum, but became embroiled in a bitter dispute over Darwinian theory with T.H. Huxley. Hawkins, meanwhile, moved to the USA to lecture and even planned a dinosaur museum in New York, before the Democratic Party demagogue Boss Tweed shelved the idea and pocketed the money. Tweed was later convicted of stealing the equivalent of $8bn of public money, and Hawkins’ models were pilfered and now lie buried underneath Central Park.


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